The changing face of the military
Flushed from the chill and worn out after training with 81-mm mortars, they began to unload their gear in the barracks, the room steaming up from the sweat.
Once the soldiers’ regular duty hours ended at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 18, they were visited by a JoongAng Ilbo reporter, who could immediately see the ways in which Korean military life has changed in the past few years.
Nowadays, more freedoms are afforded to soldiers than ever before. Increasing importance is placed on personal care and grooming, the enlisted are divided and housed by rank, and the barracks have become increasingly digitized. It’s a shift away from what it used to be, when procedures were more rigid and there were noticeably less conveniences.
“Don’t you know that knowing how to remove face paint is more important than wearing it?” said Cpl. Na Young-ho, wiping the green and brown streaks from his cheeks with cleansing tissues.
“It’s harder to remove the residue from the paint that’s left on the skin if you start with facial cleanser.”
Many units now, including the Yeowugogae Battalion, have assigned those in a same rank to the same room since 2012, following guidelines from the Ministry of National Defense.
In the privates’ room that evening, three soldiers were wearing face masks. With the masks plastered to their faces, one private watched television, while another read a book.
“I used to take care of my skin even before joining the Army,” said Pvt. Son Hun-hee, who was also wearing one. “I need it to moisturize my skin.”
The military’s Post Exchange, also known as PX, has reflected that trend, as demand for those products has increased among the enlisted. On many occasions, including on Feb. 18, face masks and moisturizers run out of stock.
One of the best-sellers there, aside from food and beverages, is a moisturizing lotion that proclaims to contain 1,600 milligrams (0.05 ounces) of processed snail slime.
When the soldiers gathered in the hallway later to shower, each of them carried a basket full of bath products.
Pvt. Park Chan-ik, for instance, had a whole host of specialty items - Tony Moly Floria Flower Energy Foaming Cleanser, which keeps skin moisturized; Happy Bath Facial Yogurt Foam, supposed to make the skin more supple; Elastine Damage Care Shampoo, said to strengthen hair; and Happy Bath Rose Essence Romantic Body Wash, which contains high doses of rose oil and claims to be rich in vitamin A and C.
Others had kits with similar items, and as they began to shower, a flowery scent permeated the hall.
Dinner began promptly at 6 p.m. Yet the food tray of Pvt. Yoon Jin-woo was half-empty, perhaps too small for a 175-centimeter (5-foot-9), 100-kilogram (220-pound) man who just came back from a day of military training.
“I am on a diet,” Yoon said matter-of-factly, adding that he had posted the word “diet” on the wall of his room to remind him of his personal mission. He eats only a half of what he used to before joining the Army, he said.
But Yoon wasn’t the only one eating less than usual. A majority of the soldiers in the dining hall had small meals.
“Side dishes are enough for me,” one even stated.
However, the trend was widespread enough that, when reported to the Ministry of National Defense, the daily serving of rice was decreased from 570 grams (1.1 pounds) to 400 grams.
“Not many of them have [all the rice],” added Sgt. First Class Choi Geun-woo, in charge of food service. “Some say they are on a diet or building their body. Maybe side dishes provide them with enough calories.”
After finishing dinner, the soldiers put their trays, each with their names on them, back on the draining board. Each man has his own tray, and the ministry is planning to do the same with pillows and pillow cases.
The barracks are also different - more technology friendly. Soldiers watch music videos on television whenever they want, using Internet protocol TV (IPTV) replays. The distribution rate of digital TVs, including IPTVs, has surged, from 29.5 percent last year to 61.6 percent this year.
When using the pay phone, they just slide their Narasarang card, or salary card, on the side and dial the number.
The battalion is given an hour for self-improvement every night at 7:30 p.m., with each room of the barracks turning into a venue for a different subject - studying English or practicing music.
“It is an hour every day, and we can put in more hours on the weekends,” said Cpl. Hong Ji-won, who has been studying for the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic).
“I have about 800 hours until I finish the service, so I want to get more than 900 points [out of 990 on the exam].”
In another room, other soldiers were playing guitars, which they brought here from home.
“The soldiers are allowed to bring anything, so long as the materials don’t compromise security or harm others,” said Lt. Kim Ju-oh, a public affairs officer of the First Army Division.
The men’s free time ends at 8:30 p.m., after which they must clean up their rooms.
Some sergeants used to shirk their responsibilities, watching television or reading comic books in the corner. But that’s not allowed anymore now that those in the same rank use the same room. Even in the sergeants’ room, all of the soldiers did their part to finish the job faster.
“[Using the same room with others in the same rank] is nice because we can share our opinions freely and rely on each other,” said Sgt. Jeon Yong-jun. “These days, we are talking about what we should do after finishing our duty.”
In addition to cleaning their rooms, the soldiers are also required to arrange their cabinets for the evening roll call. Cpl. Jo Jang-hun organized his cosmetics and a Toeic book in his cabinet, which would have been unheard of in the barracks decades ago.
Roll call begins at 9:50 p.m., when the soldiers call it a day. They need to rest to be prepared for another day of cold-weather training, which includes patrolling the hills and loading and firing heavy weaponry - physically demanding drills.
At 10 p.m., it was lights out, and the barracks soon became silent as sleep crept in.
For the reporter, who finished his military duty in 2002, life in the Army has taken a drastic turn. For privates to have free time - even to use face masks and hair care products - would be beyond the imagination of a man who finished his service years ago.
None of the military staff members could exactly pinpoint when things started to change, but most of them agreed that it was probably around three years ago, when the rooms were assigned by rank.
Actively supported by the National Defense Ministry, the number of barracks that adopted this measure increased from 726 in 2012 to 976 in 2013 - or from 42.5 percent to 57.1 percent.
However, many military officials have assessed the changes positively.
“The notion of autonomy and responsibility is settling down,” said Lt. Jeong Min-ho, a platoon commander of the battalion. “Assigning rooms by rank decreased physical and verbal abuse by senior soldiers, which has also led to fewer conflicts within the rooms. The forces also seem to be more focused since they’ve had enough rest.”
Another platoon leader, Lt. Lee Yong-jun, chimed in: “When times change, sticking only to old customs won’t draw voluntary participation from the soldiers. This system may not be perfect, but we should seek a balance between training and their personal lives.”
Still, a few worry that the military may be putting too much emphasis now on individual liberties, compromising the organization itself.
“After dividing the rooms according to rank, the soldiers definitely became more cheerful, but they are getting more selfish,” a captain of the battalion said. “When someone is given more duties than others, even privates who just began the service come to me and complain.
It may be within reason, but I am worried to see the military, which should prioritize the organization, becoming too individualized.”
BY YOO SUNG-WOON [firstname.lastname@example.org]